Never Again Online: A Tiger's tale

June 1, 2005

After a year of training and a lifelong yearning for the skies, I finally became a pilot, earning my certificate on the second to last day of 2004. Having logged all of my training hours in a Cessna 172SP, I had been looking forward to the day that I could fly one of the more interesting airplanes on my FBO's flight line. The airplane that I coveted was brand new AG-5B Tiger.

I invested 2.5 hours of flight time with my CFI and got checked out in the Tiger. I decided for my maiden voyage that I would travel from my home airport, McCollum Cobb County Airport in Georgia, south to Panama City, Florida. At 470 nm round trip, the trek was twice as long as any previous cross country that I had flown.

The flight to Panama City was smooth and uneventful. The Garmin GNS 430 GPS/nav/com on board told me that I was cruising at a groundspeed of 142 knots at an altitude of 6,500 feet agl, faster than I had ever traveled in the Cessna. I got flight following en route and landed in Panama City around 5 p.m. It took a little more than two hours to get there. During the preflight check I failed to do two vital things: The first was to check what time sunset was that evening, and the second was to do some accurate calculations on fuel consumption and range.

When I landed at Panama City, I could see that the sun was slowly sinking. I had checked out the Tiger with the intention of getting home before dark, so I made a very quick pit stop at the FBO and headed back toward the Atlanta area.

On my return, I noticed that the groundspeed was not nearly as fast as it was en route to Panama City. In fact, it was much slower than I had anticipated: 102 kt. I was flying into a fairly stiff headwind. This was not a total surprise; however, the winds had picked up and changed direction since my weather briefing of four hours earlier. In my haste to get home, I should have taken a few minutes to recheck the weather and top off the tanks.

About halfway to Atlanta, I noticed that both of tanks were one-quarter full. The sun had set, and it was now twilight. I pulled the throttle back and leaned the mixture in order to conserve fuel. In a short time it was totally dark, and I was now flying solo at night for the first time in my life.

I turned on the autopilot and reached in my bag for my electronic flight computer. I found it quickly; however, the back cover had come off in the bag. I had to use a flashlight to look for four AAA batteries rolling in the flight bag (a good reason to check everything in your flight bag before each flight, even if you are flying in daylight).

I found the batteries, fired up my computer, and did a few quick calculations. By now, the fuel gauges were telling me what the flight computer confirmed: I did not have enough fuel to get home.

I did not panic, but I did get a sick feeling in my gut. I knew that I needed to get the Tiger on the ground and get some fuel. It also dawned on me that I needed to land in the dark. Since I only had 88 hours of total time, I had never landed any airplane in the dark by myself. I had completed 12 night landings in the 172 during my primary training, but that was with a CFI sitting in the right seat, at my familiar home airport.

I started to scroll through the menus on the 430 and search for the nearest airports that had fairly long runways (more than 4,000 feet long). I then canceled flight following so that I could begin systematically calling the nearest-airport frequencies on the radio, hoping that someone could assist me. I did consider dialing in 121.5; however, six nm from my position was Newnan Airport. I could see the airport clearly on the moving map, but looking out of the airplane as I descended I could not find the field.

"Newnan Traffic, Five-X-Ray-Whiskey — I am low on fuel and need some assistance," I said in my calmest voice possible.

"Five-X-Ray-Whiskey, what is your position?"

I responded with my position, but I was not sure whom I was speaking to. As luck would have it, the voice on the radio belonged to another pilot who was getting ready to land at Newnan. I looked out my window at 2 o'clock and saw his position lights. Seconds later, he turned on the runway lights with his radio — why didn't I think of that?

I glanced at the fuel gauges. They were both hovering just above "E." I could feel my pulse quickening as I made another radio call and entered a right traffic pattern to Runway 32. Wait — the traffic pattern is left-hand! Should I turn around? I did not want to risk flying around any more than I had to, so I let everyone on the frequency know of my situation (several times). I was also doing my best to read the checklist, to make sure I had covered everything. Ironically, the landing at Newnan (without landing lights — I forgot to turn them on), was better than the one I had made in Panama City in the daylight!

Once on the ground, I sighed in relief and phoned my CFI. He was relieved to hear my voice but was very concerned as I was more than an hour late. He knew the potential for a disaster, given my experience and the circumstances. I assured him that I was all right and was going to head back as soon as I refueled. He offered to come and pick me up, but I convinced him that I could make it back to Cobb County Airport in one piece.

A few minutes later, I taxied to Runway 32, fired up the runway lights (remembering to turn on the Tiger's landing light this time), and was on my way home. I learned a bevy of lessons on my first trip in the Tiger. Not to mention all of the fine wisdom along with a few choice words that my flight instructor imparted to me upon my arrival.

In addition to the lessons learned, one epiphany that I have had is that a huge shift occurs when you get your certificate. Your skill level hasn't really changed much from when you are a student, when you are completing supervised solo cross countries. Yet now you are allowed to do so much more without someone looking over your shoulder.

Indeed, the 100-hour private pilot is allowed the same privileges as a 10,000-hour private pilot; however, low-time pilots need to realize that they do not have all the skill or the judgment to handle all of the situations that may occur, outside of those situations that they encountered while learning. Moreover, taking shortcuts on flight planning, even if someone is not checking your work, can leave one in a precarious situation. If it was not for the training that I received, and the fact that I kept a relatively cool head, I feel certain the outcome of my Tiger tale would have been a lot different.


John Kwarsick, AOPA 5159629, is a private pilot who has been flying for a year and a half, acquiring 115 hours.


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Posted Wednesday, June 08, 2005 2:11:02 PM